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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 139

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary


A.M. 2945. B.C. 1059.

This Psalm is, by many of the Jewish doctors, esteemed the most excellent in the whole book. The matter of it is noble and sublime, and so is the style. It begins with a devout contemplation of the omniscience of God; not, indeed, expressly considered in its utmost extent, as it penetrates at once with an exact and infallible comprehension through the whole scope of created nature, and reaches to the utmost verge and limits of the universe: nor as, together with the present system, and complete actual state of things, it has an intuitive and clear view of the past, and conceives the most obscure and remote futurities, and all possible natures and modes of existence: but as it particularly respects mankind, more immediately influences human morality, and a serious humble discharge of all the duties of religion. The Psalm is generally thought to have been composed by David when he lay under the imputation of having evil designs against Saul, and as pretending religion only for the covering and promoting of his own ambitious views: considered in which light, it is a solemn appeal for the divine omnipresence and omniscience, for his integrity and innocence in these matters. He asserts and enlarges on the omniscience of God, Psalms 139:1-6 . Proves by two arguments that he is everywhere present, Psalms 139:7-12 . Meditates on the formation of man in the womb, by the divine power, Psalms 139:13-16 . On his preservation through life by the divine providence, Psalms 139:17 , Psalms 139:18 . Expresses a holy hatred of sin, and of the society of sinners, Psalms 139:19-22 . And a holy satisfaction in his own integrity, Psalms 139:23 , Psalms 139:24 .

Verses 1-3

Psalms 139:1-3. O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me That is, known me exactly, as men know those things which they diligently search out. Thou knowest my down-sitting, &c. All my postures and motions; my actions, and my cessation from action. Thou understandest my thoughts All my secret counsels, designs, and imaginations; afar off Before they are perfectly formed in my own mind. Thou knowest what my thoughts will be in such and such circumstances, long before I know it, yea, from all eternity. Thou compassest my path Thou watchest me on every side, and therefore discernest every step which I take. The expression is metaphorical, and seems to be taken either from huntsmen watching all the motions and lurking places of the beasts they hunt, and endeavour to catch; or from soldiers besieging their enemies in a city, and setting watches round about them. And my lying down When I am withdrawn from all company, and am reflecting on what has passed during the day, and am composing myself to rest, thou knowest what I have in my heart, and with what thoughts I lie down to sleep; and art acquainted with all my ways At all times, in all places, and in all situations and circumstances. Thou knowest what rule I walk by, what end I walk toward, and what company I walk with.

Verses 4-5

Psalms 139:4-5. There is not a word in my tongue, &c. Thou knowest what I speak, and with what design and disposition of mind. There is not a vain word, not a good word, but thou knowest it altogether What it means, what thought gives birth to it, and with what intention it is uttered. Or, as others render the clause, When there is not a word, &c.; thou knowest what I am about to speak, either in prayer to thee, or in conversation with men, when I have not yet uttered one word of it. Thou hast beset me behind and before With thine all-seeing and all-disposing providence; so that, go which way I will, I am under thine eyes, and cannot escape its penetrating view in any way possible; and laid thy hand upon me Thou keepest me, as it were, with a strong hand, in thy sight, and under thy power.

Verse 6

Psalms 139:6. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, &c. It is such a knowledge as I cannot comprehend, much less describe. I cannot conceive, or even form any idea in what manner thou dost so perfectly know all things, especially things which have yet no being, and seem to depend on many casualties and uncertainties. Dr. Hammond renders the verse, Such knowledge is admirable, above me: it is high; I cannot deal with it. But the sense of the original of the last clause, לא אוכל לה , seems better expressed in our translation. The mind of the psalmist, when he uttered these words, was evidently impressed “with such a veneration and awe of the infinite Jehovah, the fountain and support of universal life and being; and he found his faculties so swallowed up, and, as it were, lost in meditating on so deep and immense a subject; that man’s reason, in its utmost pride and glory, and with its most boasted improvements and acquisitions of knowledge, seemed now so debased, so weak, so narrow, and, in comparison with infinity, so despicable, that he could proceed no further without expressing his admiration at such a boundless scope of intelligence as he could neither explain nor comprehend:” see Foster’s Discourses, vol. Psa 1:4 to. p. 76.

Verses 7-12

Psalms 139:7-12. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? From thy knowledge and observation; or, from thee who art a Spirit? Whither shall I flee from thy presence? I can go nowhere but thou art there, observing and judging, approving or disapproving: nor are there any means imaginable by which I can escape the reach of thy all-penetrating eye, or withdraw myself from thy universal and unbounded presence: neither can an ascent to heaven, nor a descent to the state of the dead, secure me from thine inspection, or divide me from thee. Nay, though I were able, with the swiftness of the rays of the rising sun, in an instant to shoot myself to the remotest parts of the earth or sea, even there should thy hand lead me I should still exist in thee: thy presence would be diffused all around me; and thine enlivening power would support my frame. If I say, Surely the darkness, &c.; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee

“Equally conspicuous am I, and all my circumstances, all my actions, under the thickest and most impenetrable shades of night, as in the brightest splendours of the noon-day sun.” Dr. Horne, who very properly applies this doctrine of the divine omniscience and omnipresence to practical purposes, very justly observes here, We can never sin with security, but in a place where the eye of God cannot behold us; and, he asks, “Where is that place? Had we a mind to escape his inspection, whither should we go! Heaven is the seat of his glory, creation the scene of his providence, and the grave itself will be the theatre of his power; so that our efforts will be equally vain whether we ascend or descend, or fly abroad upon the wings of the morning light, which diffuseth itself with such velocity over the globe, from east to west. The arm of the Almighty will still, at pleasure, prevent and be ready to arrest the fugitives in their progress. Darkness may indeed conceal us and our deeds from the sight of men; but the divine presence, like that of the sun, turns night into day, and makes all things manifest before God. The same consideration which should restrain us from sin, should also encourage as to work righteousness, and comfort us under all our sorrows; namely, the thought that we are never out of the sight and protection of our Maker. The piety and the charity which are practised in cottages, the labour and pain which are patiently endured in the field, and on the bed of sickness; the misery and torment inflicted by persecution in the mines, the galleys, and the dungeons; all are under the inspection of Jehovah, and are noted down by him against the day of recompense. He sees, and he will reward all we do, and all we suffer, as becometh Christians.”

Verse 13

Psalms 139:13. Thou hast possessed Or, thou dost possess, my reins The most inward and hidden part of my body, supposed also to be the seat of men’s lusts and passions: thou dwellest in them, thou art the owner and governor of them, and therefore must needs know them. My most secret thoughts and intentions, and the innermost recesses of my soul, are subject to thy control. Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb With skin and flesh, as it is expressed Job 10:11. Dr. Waterland renders this verse, Thou hast formed my reins; thou hast compacted me.

Verse 14

Psalms 139:14. I am fearfully and wonderfully made Thy infinite wisdom and power, manifested in the singular and curious structure of man’s body, fill me with wonder and astonishment, and with the dread of thy Majesty. Marvellous are thy works Both in the lesser world, man, and in the greater; and that my soul knoweth right well I am well assured, both by thy word, and by the contemplation and study of thy works, that they are wonderful, although I do not so accurately understand them in all their parts as I wish to do.

Verse 15

Psalms 139:15. My substance was not hid from thee Hebrews עצמי , my bone. So the LXX. το οστουν μου . Bone may be here taken collectively for bones, or, rather for the whole fabric of the bones: or may be put synecdochically for the whole body, as being the most substantial part of it, as in Psalms 35:10. When I was made in secret In the womb; termed, in the next clause, in the lowest parts of the earth, in a place as remote from human eyes as the lowest parts of the earth are. He seems to allude to plants and flowers, the roots and first rudiments of which are formed under ground. And curiously wrought Exquisitely composed of bones, muscles, sinews, arteries, veins, nerves, and other parts, all framed with such wonderful skill, that even heathen, upon the contemplation of the human body in all its parts, and observing how admirably they were formed for beauty and use, have broken forth into admiration and adoration of the Creator. The word רקמתי , here rendered, curiously wrought, signifies, embroidered, or, wrought with a needle. “The process,” says Dr. Horne, “whereby the fœtus is gradually formed and matured for the birth, is compared to that of a piece of work wrought with a needle, or fashioned in the loom; which, with its beautiful variety of colour, and proportion of figure, ariseth, by degrees, to perfection, under the hand of the artist.”

Thus also Bishop Lowth, speaking of metaphors in the Hebrew poetry, taken from things sacred, observes, “In that most perfect hymn, where the immensity of the Omnipresent Deity, and the admirable wisdom of the Divine Artificer, in framing the human body, are celebrated, the poet uses a remarkable metaphor drawn from the nicest tapestry work; When I was wrought as with a needle, &c. He who remarks this, and at the same time reflects on the wonderful composition of the human body, the various implication of veins, arteries, fibres, membranes, and the inexplicable texture of the whole frame, will immediately understand the beauty and elegance of this most apt expression. But he will not attain the whole force and dignity of it, unless he also considers that the most artful embroidery with the needle was dedicated, by the Hebrews, to the service of the sanctuary; and that the proper and singular use of this work was, by the immediate prescript of the divine law, applied in a certain part of the high- priest’s dress, and in the curtains of the tabernacle. So that the psalmist may well be supposed to have compared the wisdom of the Divine Artificer particularly with that specimen of human art, whose dignity was, through religion, the highest, and whose elegance was so exquisite, that the sacred writer seems to attribute it to a divine inspiration.” Lowth’s Eighth Prelection.

Verse 16

Psalms 139:16. Thine eyes did see my substance Hebrews גלמי , my rude mass, as Dr. Waterland renders the word: massa rudis et intricata adhuc, says Buxtorf, neque in veram formam evoluta, a mass, yet rude and entangled, and not unfolded into proper form. When the matter, out of which I was made, was an unshapen embryo, without any form, it was visible to thee how every part, however minute, would be wrought; and in thy book all my members were written Before any of them were in being they lay open before thy eyes, and were discerned by thee as clearly as if the plan of them had been drawn in a book. Thy eternal wisdom formed the plan, and according to that, thy almighty power raised the structure. The allusion to the needlework seems to be still carried on. “As the embroiderer hath his book or pattern before him, to which he always recurs; so by a method as exact were all my members in continuance fashioned; and as from the rude skeins of silk, under the artificer’s hands, there at length arises an unexpected beauty, and an accurate harmony of colours and proportions; so, by the skill of the divine workman, is a shapeless mass wrought into the most curious texture of parts, most skilfully interwoven and connected with each other, until it becomes a body harmoniously diversified with all the limbs and lineaments of a man, not one of which at first appeared, any more than the figures were to be seen in the ball of silk. But then, (which is the chief thing here insisted on by the psalmist,)

whereas the human artificer must have the clearest light, whereby to accomplish his task, the divine work-master seeth in secret, and effecteth all his wonders within the dark and narrow confines of the womb.” Horne.

Verses 17-18

Psalms 139:17-18. How precious also, &c. “From the wonders of God’s forming hand, the psalmist proceeds to those of his all-directing providence, which afford additional proofs of the divine omniscience and omnipresence.” Are thy thoughts unto me Thy counsels, or contrivances, in my behalf, which are admirable and amiable in my eyes, and replete with kindness. Thou didst not only form me at first, but ever since my conception and birth thy thoughts have been employed for my good, preserving, providing for, and blessing me. How great is the sum of them! Thy gracious counsels, designs, and providential dispensations toward me are numberless. If I should count them Hebrew, אספרם , rather, shall I count them? that is, shall I attempt to count them? They are more in number than the sand I might as well undertake to number the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with thee Thy wonderful counsels and works on my behalf come constantly into my mind, not only in the day-time, but even in the night-season, whenever I awake. “The thoughts and counsels of Jehovah,” says Dr. Horne, “concerning David, his appointment to the throne, his troubles, and his preservation in the midst of them, were precious and delightful subjects of meditation and praise, never to be exhausted of the rich matter they contained. With these in his mind he lay down at night, and when he awoke in the morning his thoughts naturally recurred to the pleasing theme. He began where he had left off, and found himself, in heart and soul, still present with God, still ruminating on him and his works.”

Verse 19

Psalms 139:19. Surely, thou wilt slay the wicked, O God And as thou hast precious and gracious thoughts toward me, (which thou also hast toward all that love and fear thee,) so thou wilt not now desert me and leave me in the hands of those wicked men who, unmindful of thy presence and thy all- seeing eye, regard not by what means they plot my ruin. But rather, as thou knowest all things, and art perfectly acquainted “with the justice of my cause, and the iniquity of my adversaries; and as thou hast formed, and hitherto in so wonderful a manner watched over and preserved me, thou wilt slay the wicked, and deliver me, as thou hast promised to do, out of their hands. Depart from me, therefore, ye bloody men I trust in my God, and will have no connection in the way of treaty or friendship with you.” Thus David, in this verse, draws the intended conclusion from the premises so largely expatiated upon in the former part of the Psalm.

Verse 20

Psalms 139:20. For they speak against thee wickedly It is not so much me that they persecute, in opposing, misrepresenting, and speaking against me, as virtue and piety, in persecuting which they oppose and speak against thee; contemning thy omniscience and omnipresence, and thy superintending providence. And thine enemies take thy name in vain Or, according to the order of the Hebrew words, They take thy name in vain, and are thine enemies. Or, are haters of thee, as it follows, Psalms 139:21. They abuse thy blessed name with oaths, blasphemies, and perjuries, calling thee to witness the truth of their lies and calumnies. Or, as some render the clause, Thine enemies take thee to falsehood, (the words; thy name, being not in the Hebrew,) “they take thee, only to swear falsely by thee.”

Verses 21-22

Psalms 139:21-22. Do not I hate them that hate thee? I appeal to thee, the omnipresent and omniscient God, whether I do not perfectly hate them, (that is, hate their ways,) so far as they are enemies to thee and goodness. Am I not grieved With the folly and sin of those that rise up against thee? That act in open hostility against thy authority. I am grieved to see their wickedness, and to foresee the ruin in which it will certainly end. I count them mine enemies I am no less grieved with their enmity against thee than if they directed it against myself. “A faithful servant hath the same interests, the same friends, the same enemies, with his Master, whose cause and honour he is, upon all occasions, in duty bound to support and maintain. A good man hates, as God himself doth; he hates not the persons of men, but their sins; not what God made them, but what they have made themselves. We are neither to hate the men on account of the vices they practise, nor love the vices for the sake of the men who practise them. He who observes invariably this distinction, fulfils the perfect law of charity, and hath the love of God and of his neighbour abiding in him.” Horne.

Verses 23-24

Psalms 139:23-24. Search me, O God Do thou, who art the searcher of hearts, judge whether I do not speak this from my very heart, and deal with me accordingly. See if there be any wicked way in me Hebrew, דרךְ עצב , way of trouble or grief; any course of life, or temper of mind, which is a source of grief or trouble, either, 1st, To myself, as all sin is to the sinner, sooner or later; or, 2d, To others, as I am accused of causing much trouble, and designing evil to the king and kingdom; and lead me in the way everlasting In the way of godliness, the way which is right and good, and leads to everlasting life; whereas the way of wickedness, to which this is opposed, will perish, as is said Psalms 1:6, and bring men to utter destruction. Or, as the words may be rendered, In the old way, which is the good way, as it is called Jeremiah 6:16, the way of righteousness and holiness, which may well be called the old way, because it was written on the hearts of men from the beginning of the world, whereas wickedness is of later date. Observe, reader, they that are upright can take comfort in God’s omniscience, as a witness of their uprightness, and can, with an humble confidence, beg of him to search and try them, and discover them to themselves, for a good man desires to know the worst of himself. Nay, they have no objection, but rather desire to be discovered to others. He that means honestly could wish he had a window in his breast, that any man might look into his heart; for his ruling desire is, in all things, to know and do the will of God.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 139". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/psalms-139.html. 1857.
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